The Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting (CBTH), a UK-based NGO founded by Eduardo Goncalves, held a reception in the IPU (Inter-Parliamentary Union) Room at the House of Commons on January 22nd. Event invitations stated that the event would be focussed on “Trophy Hunting: The Case for a UK Import/Export Ban” (CBTH wants to change exemptions to CITES regulations that allow ‘trophy hunters’ to import bits of dead animals they’ve shot overseas) and that a rather interesting line-up of speakers would be jostling for space alongside high-profile supporters and media representatives (these events are always well-attended, thanks to Eduardo and his team’s highly organised networking).
Those speakers included:
- Tracey Crouch – Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford
- Sir Ranulph Fiennes OBE
- Lord Zac Goldsmith — Minister of State at Defra
- Dr Ross Harvey — Economist, EMS Foundation, South Africa
- Stanley Johnson
- Ole Liodden — Norwegian wildlife photographer, conservationist and author, ‘Polar Bears & Humans’
- Luke Pollard MP — Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and Shadow Environment Secretary
How could anyone turn down an invitation to the House of Commons with a speaker list like that?
Now, before we start, given that anyone reading this has come to a website called ‘The War on Wildlife Project’, it’s probably obvious that we support the Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting. Not unquestionably, but we certainly support aims to tighten CITES regulations and a ban on the import of ‘trophies’ into the UK (which is what this event was focussed on). We are fully aware that there are strongly oppositional arguments for and against ‘trophy hunting’, and we understand the well-founded arguments that before any total ban is put into place alternatives to shooting wildlife for money need to be found. There are legitimate concerns that the huge areas of ‘reserves’ currently managed for ‘trophy hunting’ may be converted into cash crops instead (which would mean the loss of the existing biodiversity (plants and animals) that are found there). It is true that at current levels it may not be possible (especially in remote areas) to replace the revenues (often collected largely by estate owners rather than local communities) that shooting currently brings with eco-tourism.
However, I think we are fully justified in taking an ethical stance when it comes to wildlife, and it is our view that wildlife should not be seen as a resource to be exploited by foreign ‘hunters’. Conservation is not a black or white issue (it doesn’t even have a workable definition that is universally agreed upon) but surely modern conservation shouldn’t just be about numbers but should take into account sentience and the rights to life of an individual animal? Given the staggering losses of mammals in the last half-century or so, how can it be right – morally or ethically – to have thousands of ‘hunters’ roaming the world picking off the largest, the most spectacular, the most ‘attractive’ individuals of declining species?
Hunters regularly present themselves as ‘conservationists’ – without us, the argument goes, there would be no incentive to keep these animals in the wild. Without us going out and shooting them, they would have no value. Why, though, would a ban on importing ‘trophies’ to the UK have any impact on these selfless ‘conservationists’? In terms of ‘the thrill of the hunt’ nothing would change. They’d still be out there killing, still be out there giving huge sums of money to wealthy estate owners (and/or local communities). Or is the truth more that if they can’t display their ‘prowess’ (or in the case of canned hunting, their ability to afford an overseas flight) by hanging a head or a pair of horns on a wall they just aren’t interested?
The above views were quite clearly shared by the people in the room. Which was hardly unexpected, of course, given that it was a reception attended by invited supporters of CTBH and of (live) wildlife. So, having said all that, here are a few reflections on what was said at an all-too-brief but very interesting meeting…
Eduardo Goncalves, who was looking very relaxed and in good health (he said to me with a grin that “these things always pep me up“), opened proceedings with an outline of what was to come and a warning that pro-trophy hunt lobbyists would be doing everything they could to repudiate what we were about to hear (well of course, but then that’s expected when ‘sides’ hold such diametrically opposed views).
He thanked his supporters (like former newscaster and tv & radio interviewer Jan Leeming and actress Vicki Michelle MBE, and the assembled media (and more were assembled than the last time I was at the Commons for a CBTH event) for “getting us to where we are“. Darn right.
Eduardo explained that, as he saw it, amongst other things ‘trophy hunting’ was a front for poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, that 20 million animals had been killed in Africa by ‘trophy hunters’, and asked why it’s still lawful to kill sentient beings just so that hunters can boast about their ‘prowess’? Darn right again.
He even threw in a rather well-told line (who knew Eduardo had such comic timing?) about political parties “violently agreeing with each other” when it came to signing Early Day Motion (EDM) #50, which had been tabled on January 9th and amongst other related asks called “on the Government to implement a comprehensive ban on trophy hunting imports and exports as quickly as possible“.
Which led on to a few (rather tentative or perhaps self-deprecating) words from Tracey Crouch MP. Perhaps I misread her mood because Tracey has been at the forefront of animal welfare issues amongst Conservative politicians, and has spoken out against the use animals in experiments, attempts at weakening or repealing the Hunting Act (which bans the hunting of wild mammals with dogs), and against the badger cull (as well as stepping down from the Cabinet when Sports Minister over delays to planned gambling reforms). She is just what you’d look for in a decent politician in other words.
Ms Crouch reminisced about how she had used to feel “lonely on the backbenches talking about animal welfare“, but her persistence had clearly paid off. She was, after all EDM #50’s primary sponsor (in other words the person who tabled the motion and has responsibility for it). That EDM now has 56 supporters from seven political parties. Animal welfare going mainstream? Fingers crossed. Our wildlife would certainly be happy to hear it…
Ms Crouch was followed by Sir Ranulph Fiennes (pictured here with campaigner Peter Egan), who Eduardo introduced as not just “the world’s greatest explorer, but one of the most respected people in the entire country“. I have no idea how true that is, but Sir Ranulph certainly has a strong presence, with a carefully measured voice that hints at a full life (a very, very full life indeed).
He set about laying into trophy hunting with the same strength of purpose that gave Everest a bit of a seeing to, saying that “wildlife is not a resource we can exploit” and that “as long as we continue to kill sentient animals for pleasure we can’t call ourselves civilised”. He went on to say, presumably with one eye on the MPs in the room, that “Britain can play a leading role in implementing sound solutions”.
Sir Ranulph then introduced his young daughter Elizabeth. It’s an unfortunate quirk of timing that in the Greta Thunberg-era, any slender, fair-haired, earnest, activist will be compared with the world’s most famous teenage Swede. But, then, when the comparison is actually favourable, perhaps that’s no bad thing!
Elizabeth was certainly channelling the same sort of controlled anger that Greta Thunberg brings to the room, and started off, perhaps in the light of recent news that groups like Extinction Rebellion were being ‘mistakenly’ (as in, ‘Whoops, you caught me, that wasn’t meant to happen…’) labelled as a key threat by counter-terrorist police, telling us that her CBTH branded t-shirt had been taken off her by Parliamentary security officers.
She proceeded to stare us all down on behalf of the world’s children. “I’m angry,” she said. “Children all over the world are angry. Stop killing everything.” She talked of a future “emptied of wildlife by adults“, and described ‘trophy hunting’ as a “display of inadequacy“.
If you like your emotions raw (and I happen to think conservation needs far more emotion to go with its science) this would have struck you as a seriously powerful contribution. And whether you agree with her or not, it is undoubtedly true that our children have every right to be angry. The mess we’re in (in fact ALL the mess we’re in) was caused by us on our watch, and it is today’s young people that are going to have to clear it up.
Luke Pollard, the amiable Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport and Shadow Environment Secretary, followed Elizabeth Fiennes, with applause for her still ringing in his ears. His contribution was brief, but he spoke eloquently about cross-party support for a ban on trophy hunting. Given the fractious year just gone, it must have been something of a relief (and a change!) to be able to say that “it’s not just a pursuit for some MPs but something that unites all of us.” With ludicrous fossils like Kate Hoey at last out of the Parliamentary picture, that is probably more true than it has been for many years.
Talking of MPs who (if political life was defined by the number of votes received at elections, anyway) might also now be out of the Parliamentary picture, Lord Goldsmith (or Zac as most folk still call him) then took his position behind the rostrum.
Zac has something of a ‘marmite’ reputation – his extremely good work on environmental issues often positioned next to poorly-judged campaigning in the London Mayoral elections some years ago. On wildlife though, I’d suggest that Lord Goldsmith is unimpeachable (even if he manages to turn every appearance into a rather lengthy discursion on his work to expand Protected Areas around our overseas territories). Whether the public agree with how Lord Goldsmith remained in a position of extreme influence or not (despite losing his Richmond seat to the Liberal Democrats in the general election, Boris Johnson elevated him to the House of Lords and reappointed him to his old post as a minister in the department for the environment, food and rural affairs and the department for international development), he has been at this a very long time and is extremely well-informed: if the appointment had gone instead to someone who saw ‘protecting wildlife’ as a stepping stone to another role, then there is little doubt that wildlife would have lost out.
Anyway, after praising Eduardo for his lobbying skills, Lord Goldsmith went on to say that ‘trophy hunting’ may not be “the worst thing happening to wildlife” but, he asked pertinently, “what does it say about us as a species in the midst of an extinction crisis that animals are worth more dead than alive?”. Maybe that’s one for the comments below, but I know what my personal opinion is on that excellent point…
Actually, this was one of the more upbeat talks of the afternoon, delivered impeccably with immense charm. The take-home message was that “This will be a defining year” – we can only hope, but if there is a genuine consensus in Parliament that animal welfare does matter then 2020 really could be memorable for more than Brexit…
A frequent criticism made by pro-trophy hunting lobbyists is that campaigners against are uninformed, don’t know the territory properly, and haven’t engaged with local communities. Our arguments, they say, are based on emotion rather than science and we are ignoring the realities of what takes place on the ground.
Dr Ross Harvey would beg to differ. A freelance economist, Ross started his wildlife research career at the South African Institute of International Affairs, where he worked as a senior researcher from 2013 to 2019. His initial work oversaw a project that examined every element of the ivory trade, and he has published in one of the world’s top journals, Ecological Economics. In an opinion piece for the South African ‘Daily Maverick’ last December, he wrote that, “For a Western hunter to pay to kill an African animal and expatriate its parts is a form of objectification, dehumanising and therefore morally reprehensible. It may entrench a Western narrative of supremacy underpinned by chauvinistic, colonialist and crudely utilitarian anthropocentric attitudes.”
That was a theme he repeated here, starting with comparing the attitudes of trophy hunters to those of opponents of William Wilberforce (the noted anti-slavery campaigner), saying that hunters used similar doom-laden arguments along the lines that “we have to have trophy hunting” or civilisation would collapse. A fiercely passionate speaker, Dr Harvey puts great store on ’emotions’ being an important component of policy and is unashamed to say that he finds trophy hunting “morally repugnant“. Moreover in his opinion “hunting undermines community efforts to partake in the lucrative eco-tourism industry“.
It was powerful testimony that charged head-on into a number of the arguments put forward by ‘trophy hunters’ – and skittled them.
Ole Liodden was up next. He focussed on the trophy hunting of Polar Bears. Which he – unlike the majority of us in the IPU Room – knew a lot about.
Like Ross Harvey before him, Ole is an expert on his subject. He earned Master degrees from the University in Ås (Norway) in Natural Resource Management, Resource Economics and Environmental Politics, and has also studied Wildlife Management, Ornithology and Mammalogy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). He’s photographed Polar Bears, thought about Polar Bears, and it was perhaps his insight on the hunting of Polar Bears that caused the most audible gasps in the IPU Room.
As Ole explained, while climate change and ice-melt threaten the Polar Bear, some 800 of them are being shot for trophies every year! Hunters claim that fees paid to Innuit communities are vital, but – according to Ole – where once 23 of 25 Innuit communities in the area he’d studied had been involved in trophy hunting, that number had dropped to just eight. Just 52% of fees collected by agents actually reached local communities, and that money made up around just 5% of their total income. There was, they’d found, far more money to be made in taking multiple tourists to see multiple Polar Bears multiple times, than guiding one hunter to kill a bear. Eco-tourism, Ole said, was sustainable in the long-term. Moreover, hunters targetted the largest bears, leaving the ‘small, weak, and sick behind” – a form of “reverse selection“. It’s hard to disagree with him.
In a slight change of tone, we ended with the Stanley Johnson show. Where the uninitiated might have wondered if they were watching a rather clever mimic who’d perfected his ‘Boris Johnson as an elderly eccentric‘ routine, anyone who’d seen Stanley in full rumpled flow before would be very aware that son Boris is merely continuing the family clowning tradition.
Which is not to say that Stanley Johnson doesn’t have a rather storied history when it comes to conservation. He was, for example, at the forefront of the campaign to ban the import of Canadian seal fur when an MEP, and awarded both WWF’s Leaders of the Planet and the RSPB Medal in 2015 because of his role in the creation of one of the cornerstones of Europe’s nature conservation policy, the Habitats Directive. He knows his stuff.
Mr Johnson was certainly on good form today, almost from the off making a joke about how he’d “tried to impart some environmental wisdom to the Johnson clan” and ribbing Zac (Lord) Goldsmith about how fortunate he’d been to lose his Richmond seat so that he would have time to focus on conservation issues rather further afield.
That’s probably the sort of remark you can only get away with when you’ve known someone a long time and your son has just put him in the House of Lords – definitely not one ‘to try at home’ as it were – and it went down well with (from left to right) Lord Goldsmith himself, Jan Leeming, Peter Egan, and Vicki Michelle.
Anyway, Stanley did end on a serious note, saying that killing animals for trophies was “indefensible and cruel”. We’re not going to argue with someone who’s been involved in conservation since before we learned to write.
And then it was all over (at least for those of us less directly involved in the campaign – no doubt some serious discussions took place afterwards). What CBTH has achieved in a relatively short time is remarkable. I wrote in a previous piece that the campaign “has caught the zeitgeist with both hands”, and I stick by that. Public opinion is undoubtedly shifting away from seeing animals as ‘brutes’ or ‘food’ or some sort of resource towards thinking of them sympathetically, as sentient beings that deserve to live – or, if that’s perhaps too strong for some, at least moving to a place where if they must die, then it should be for good reason and in as a pain-free and caring way as possible. Trophy hunting, whether or not you subscribe to concerns about land-use (and I do), with its gurning selfies and glorification of ‘killing’ does not fit the modern take on compassionate animal welfare.
As a final thought, I tweeted about the event on the way home and found my inbox filling with complaints from ‘pro’ hunters that they’d been excluded from the Commons. Why wasn’t there someone there to explain their point of view, they asked? It seems odd that someone without an academic background should need to explain the difference between a reception and a debate to such eminent folk – but I’ll give it a go: a reception is designed to be an opportunity to rally and update supporters. It’s not intended to be a two- or three-way discussion. If anyone wants to debate the merits of shooting wildlife they are absolutely free to arrange their own event and their own press-coverage, and rally their own supporters and onside MPs of course (the so-called Countryside Alliance have been doing it for years after all).
Heck, if they want to they’re even free to submit a guest post here or offer to do an interview with me.